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The Kanban methodology was originally developed in the early 1940s in Japan by Taiichi Ohno (an industrial engineer and businessman) in an attempt to improve the workflows of Toyota automotives. The peculiarity of Kanban is that it is a “gentle” way of making changes happen: it doesn’t require revolutionary changes but rather it is based on triggering a process of continuous small improvements. It doesn’t require throwing away everything that you have done and starting again, but rather it focuses on what you are already doing and builds on that. Thanks to this non-disruptive approach it is more easily accepted by teams and management since it doesn’t threaten the actual workflow, team organisation or people involved but it makes changes happen by many small parts. It is extremely flexible: you can apply Kanban to any kind of project or workflow, in just any field, from automotive to marketing, from software development to sales, and it’s a particularly good fit for knowledge work areas. Kanban is the translation into alphabetic characters of a Japanese word that means “visual board” or “sign”. As a matter of fact, Kanban IS a visual methodology: it requires that you set up a “Kanban board” where you visually follow the advancement of a project or of a workflow. In the most simple version of it, you can imagine a Kanban board as a board where you place sticky notes on three columns: “to do”, “in progress”, “done”. And in this way, you can immediately have a glimpse of how your project is going. But obviously, there is more to Kanban than that.

The Kanban 4 foundational principles

If you want to apply Kanban you must be aware that Kanban follows a set of principles and rules that, while not being strict, do offer precise guidelines. Let’s start with the 4 foundational principles, that are:
  • Start with what you are doing now
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  • Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities and job titles
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels
It is evident from the above that the Kanban methodology - as we mentioned before - focuses on obtaining small, non-disruptive changes. For example, the first principle emphasises the fact that changing your existing processes or workflows all at once may be detrimental. It is better to let changes occur gradually and not force the team to a pace that they are not comfortable with. By a matter of fact, Kanban does not require making authoritarian, often ill-received organisational changes, but encourages the team to collaboratively identify and make the changes needed. For the same reason, people at all levels (and not only senior management) are encouraged to bring their ideas and contribute. The point is overcoming the fear and the resistance to change that can often arise in a company.

The Kanban 6 core practices

It is with the 6 core practices that we can see the Kanban “spirit” fully unfold. They are:
  • Visualise the flow of work
  • Limit WIP (Work in Progress)
  • Manage Flow
  • Make Process Policies Explicit
  • Implement Feedback Loops
  • Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally
Kanban focuses on optimising workflows. The first thing you have to do is to visualise it (first practice) by the aid of a Kanban board, which may be physical or electronic. Depending on the complexity of your flows, the board may be simple or very complicated, but in any version you use coloured cards to identify different work items and process steps. In a physical board you could use coloured sticky notes.  The other core practices are about controlling the workflow: when adopting Kanban you should try to finish the tasks you have started before starting new ones (limit WIP), highlight the stages of the workflow and avoid bottlenecks by quickly identifying them. Make your guidelines explicit to avoid misunderstandings between team members and work experimentally, like in the scientific method, with agile trial and error stages, constantly evaluating your processes.

Kanban software

Even if physical boards are a great way to start practicing Kaban, using the right kanban software can help you save time and work smoother, due to its many built in features. There are many solutions to choose from, the most widely known are Kanbanize, Jira, Trello, Asana, Smartsheet and Flow-e. The best way to understand if one of these could be fit for your company is to try them, taking advantage of their free or trial versions.
Article updated on: 09 August 2023
Talent Garden
Written by
Talent Garden, Digital Skills Academy

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